Meet Helen Wang. She is your personal finance advisor. She is 22 years old.
“A lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know where to even start,” said Wang, a fourth-year student in mathematics and finance who helps fellow students at Northeastern take control of their financial lives. “I usually start by asking them a few questions, like, if they’ve ever had a job, if they’ve ever tracked their spending, stuff like that.”
Wang works part time at Northeastern’s Center for Financial Independence, a glassed-in office that is run by students, for students. The transparency of the center walls is illuminating: Those who enter do so with the goal of seeing through the clutter, confusion and intimidation of financial planning.
The center exists for students who wish to learn about student loans, credit cards, debt management, budgeting, and, of course, investing. It was launched by Northeastern’s Student Financial Services in 2015. It is located on the first floor of Curry Student Center, and it is an unusual resource among American universities. The financial advice is effective because it is delivered empathetically by peers.
“They understand what other students are interested in more than I do,” said Elizabeth Lally, the assistant director, and the only non-student at the center. “They know absolutely what students want to know and care about, and what their struggles are.”
Students can walk in during business hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday) or make a free one-on-one appointment to discuss any number of issues. Visitors are greeted by a paid management team of 10 Northeastern students, headed by chief executive officer Katherine (KC) Hut, who is doing a co-op at the center. During events Hut and her colleagues wear green T-shirts of a shade of well-worn money.
“I think students are terrified of student loans,” said Hut, a fourth-year student in behavioral neuroscience. “Many of them just think that it’s a problem to handle when they graduate. They don’t even know how much they’re borrowing.”
Hut and Carly Joos, a fifth-year student in marketing and entrepreneurship, will be leading a “Lowdown on Loans” event Monday at 6-7 p.m.
“Even if you don’t have the means to be paying down your loans right now, staying on top of them prevents you from being completely baffled or overwhelmed later,” Hut said.
Thousands of students are in contact with the center annually, and those numbers are sure to climb as the word spreads. The center’s website includes testimonials from students who have seen the light (or at least have escaped financial darkness). A student named Rachel, who was intimidated by credit-card debt, learned of her options in a 30-minute meeting at the center. Another student had been wasting too much money during co-op on restaurants. “It was great to see a chef explain how to cook a week’s worth of tasty meals under $40,” wrote Parker after an event.
The center also runs an incubator, Thrive, that encourages students to develop ideas that promote financial literacy. Among Northeastern students, “Thrive” has turned into a shorthand nickname for the center. A side benefit is that the center’s leaders have gained a greater appreciation for their own futures.
“Social security is underfunded,” said Jake Becker, a fifth-year student in accounting and finance. “People are retiring later and living much longer. So you can either take control of that, or do nothing. My choice would be to do something.”
Joos has applied her hands-on training to help her parents sort through the student loans that she and her two older brothers have taken on.
“They had no idea of some of the options that we had,” Joos said. “I wish I’d been 10 years older, and had this resource, and was able to guide them through their three kids going through college.
“I never thought I’d be teaching my parents.”